Several records were either established or broken on round seven of the 2021 World Rally Championship, as Kalle Rovanperä claimed his first ever victory on Rally Estonia.
It was an emphatic drive, and one worthy of its achievement. But there were far more storylines and subplots to take away from the WRC’s second ever visit to Estonia.
Here’s what we learned from 2021 Rally Estonia.
Breen would be a real threat with a proper program
There’s something about fast rallies that Craig Breen seems to enjoy. All four of his WRC podiums to date have come on the quick stuff; the latest of which was claimed last weekend on Rally Estonia.
Breen’s second spot mirrored the result he achieved a year earlier, but this repeat success was no less impressive than the first. He had a better road position than most on Friday, but Breen hadn’t driven a World Rally Car on gravel since being in Estonia 10 months ago.
He therefore proved himself to be the optimum plug-in and play option for Hyundai at the weekend, but the truth is he could be capable of far more than that. Breen certainly believes the victory fight in Estonia would’ve lasted a lot longer if he’d been more acquainted with Hyundai’s i20 Coupe WRC as opposed to the R5.
Breen has never completed a full season in the WRC. He came close in both 2017 and ’18 driving for Citroën, but he had to occasionally sacrifice his drive for the likes of Sébastien Loeb to make one-off appearances. Since joining Hyundai halfway through 2019, Breen has shared his ride with Dani Sordo.
The time has come for the world to see what Breen can really do with all the tools at his disposal. Every event he starts he does so with one arm tied behind his back. Your move Hyundai, M-Sport and Toyota…
Evans continues to be a bit lost
It’s been a strange season for Elfyn Evans so far. The highlight was of course victory on Rally Portugal, but on most other weekends he’s looked a little bit lost and drained of confidence in his Toyota. Things aren’t going badly, but they certainly aren’t going perfectly.
That wasn’t more evident than in Estonia. Continually, Evans just couldn’t quite match the pace of team-mate and title rival Sébastien Ogier – and that’s costly given Ogier was also not at his dominant best either.
There’s a theory that Evans being able to string together solid results despite not being totally at one is a good thing, that it signifies that his true potential is mesmerizing. But what if Evans can’t ever get to his true potential? The theme of him being just a shave off the mark is certainly nothing new.
This answer to a question from DirtFish’s Colin Clark about what he was lacking in Estonia says all we need to know.
“Just the last bit of confidence it seems, I’m just not completely relaxed to be honest and at one with everything,” Evans said.
“It’s difficult to be honest to put your finger on what it is, the car doesn’t feel bad, so yeah. We’ve managed to improve the balance [of the car] a little bit but it doesn’t seem to make any step really in the performance as it were.”
The brightside is Ypres Rally is up next, and Evans always goes well on asphalt. But he’ll need to, as he managed to allow Ogier to extend his already large points gap despite Ogier not being at his maximum and having a worse road position last weekend.
Tänak’s title bid is done
Evans’s form might be on a wane, but at least he’s still in the race.
The mathematicians amongst you may disagree with this incoming statement, but Ott Tänak’s title chances in 2021 are done.
A turnaround from here would be a sensational feat given he trails Ogier by 74 points – as many points as Tänak himself has registered on the board. With five rallies remaining, 150 points are still up for grabs but realistically, Tänak’s focus will now be on helping Hyundai’s manufacturers’ bid.
He even suggested so himself at the end of Rally Estonia when discussing points he could’ve earned on the powerstage: “It’s not important for me anymore but for the team.”
Tänak’s season has predominantly been a tale of frustration and missed opportunities – namely the two victories that went begging in Portugal and Italy. Estonia was likely to be a high point for him, and he was leading the way on Friday morning, but things went wrong.
The first puncture was unavoidable, but the second and third were actually of Tänak’s own accord. In very untypical Tänak, he almost seemed too desperate to make up his lost ground immediately and plunged off the road into a field with high force, deflating two of his Pirellis.
A win would’ve propelled Tänak back into the serious title contenders bracket, but he’s now very much a substitute player in what’s increasingly looking like a one-player match.
2022 can’t come soon enough for M-Sport
From the highs of M-Sport’s successful public launch of its new Puma Rally1 challenger, the team was thumped back down to reality with a frustrating and perplexing outing in Estonia.
There had been hope that the team’s Fiesta WRC would be a quicker package than it had been 10 months ago, where the lack of testing really told against the might of Toyota and Hyundai. Its recent engine upgrade and work on the suspension at the pre-Estonia test were the remedies.
However it never really got the chance to prove to either its rivals or itself if the changes had really worked. Gus Greensmith was running a strong fifth after SS2, but an engine gremlin then dogged his Fiesta WRC and his event was ruined from there.
There were similar gremlins for Teemu Suninen’s car too – albeit less terminally – which made it a slight opportunity squandered. That applies to both M-Sport and Suninen himself, who freely admitted before the event that this was a good opportunity to remind everyone what he could do. And he didn’t necessaritly deliver there in the way he’d like, if we’re honest.
The asphalt of Ypres will be a different and unique challenge, so M-Sport will be looking forward to trying to spring a surprise there. Either way, Estonia was far from a rich reward for amazing guys and girls that haven’t been home since before traveling to the Safari Rally.
The Rovanperä hype has been justified
Let’s switch focus back to the man of the moment, shall we? Kalle Rovanperä’s breakthrough world rally victory has been a long time coming, but he earned this one in style.
There might be people quick to point out that had Tänak not been ruled out, Rovanperä wouldn’t have won. Tänak did win 11 stages after all.
But there are two flaws to that argument. Firstly, as mentioned above, two of Tänak’s three punctures were completely avoidable and therefore self-inflicted. And secondly, Rovanperä’s run on SS10 on Saturday morning was, quite simply, one of the best single-stage performances in modern WRC history.
A lot is made of the time he made up on Breen, but he still destroyed Tänak by over 10s. Rovanperä had the pace to win last weekend no matter what the circumstances were.
The main takeaway is just how assured he looked. Continually he faced the inevitable questions about he was feeling when potential victory crept closer, and continually he brushed them aside, refusing to get carried away. It was if he’d been leading rallies for years.
You get the impression that had the situation been reversed and it was Breen that was on the brink of glory, the nerves would’ve been much more apparent.
That’s not to criticize Breen, far from it, but to point out just how mature this performance from Rovanperä was.
We’ve talked about it for ages, but this will surely be the first of many wins.
Lukyanuk deserves a WRC chance
Rally Estonia 2021 was probably the perfect synopsis of Alexey Lukyanuk’s rallying career. Insanely fast on high-speed roads, but prone to the odd error.
Lukyanuk didn’t look like making his customary mistake in Estonia, winning 21 of the first 21 stages in WRC3 to blitz into a lead of over three minutes – also one minute ahead of the leading WRC2 runner Andreas Mikkelsen too.
The double and reigning European Rally Champion had even backed off on the last few stages, but he rolled his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo on the final stage of the rally, arriving at the final stop-line in a rather sorry state.
Forget about that though, because this was a massively attention-grabbing drive that’s worthy of heavy praise. He was genuinely in a class of one, and doing that while driving a car unfamiliar to him (Lukyanuk had never rallied a Škoda before this event).
It would be fascinating to see what Lukyanuk could do on more regular outings in WRC3. Clearly he has the speed, but would he have the composure? And how would he fare on more technical, strategic events?
Lukyanuk’s budget means he’s unlikely to make the step unless somebody steps up and backs him, but he’s more than deserving of at least a chance. Maybe WRC Promoter taking over the promotion of the ERC next year could work in his favor…?